People-Pleasing vs. Brutal Honesty: When & How to Share Feedback with Your Partner

This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “People-Pleasing vs. Brutal Honesty: When & How to Share Feedback with Your Partner.” To listen to this episode, click here.

Welcome back to my blog! I’m so glad you’re here. The previous blog article and this blog article are devoted to exploring the line between what stays inside of our heads and what gets said out loud in our intimate relationships. 

In the previous article, I introduced the idea that each of us exists somewhere on a Filter Spectrum. At one end of the filter spectrum is bluntness. Some of us have little to no filter. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what goes from our thinking bubble to our speaking bubble. We speak our minds. We are seen as blunt. At the other end of the spectrum is people pleasing. Others of us have a very strong filter. We are highly discerning about what goes from our thinking bubble to our speaking bubble. We couch what we say. We are seen as tactful or people-pleasing. I talked about the factors that shape why we live where we live on that Filter Spectrum including culture, personality, and wounds and patterns from our Family of Origin. Toward the end of the article, I moved us away from exploring why you have the filter you have and toward looking at the relational dynamics.

And that is where we pick up here! Intimate relationships benefit from feedback, for sure. When you share an observation of yours with your partner, your partner can use your observation as fuel to help them understand you more deeply, to help them grow⁣, and to help them love you in the way you want and need to be loved.⁣ ⁣But when and how we share feedback is a delicate matter that takes mindfulness and skill so that feedback deepens—rather than erodes—connection. Although each of us has a place we tend to live on the Filter Spectrum, bluntness and people-pleasing are not hard and fast traits. We all are at risk of saying something that lands more harshly than we intend it to. We are all at risk of keeping quiet and feeling resentful. Bluntness and people-pleasing arise in relational contexts. That being said, couples sometimes get into patterns that generate hurt and disconnection. If you’re in a relationship where you feel like there are different preferences around when and how to share feedback, this article is for you. In this article, I am going to discuss:

  • A way of thinking about feedback
  • Guidance for the more blunt partner
  • Guidance for loving the more blunt one
  • Guidance for the more people-pleasing partner
  • Guidance for loving the more people-pleasing one

I have created a companion worksheet for this article. If you’d like to grab your copy, you can head to and sign up to receive it!

Gottman’s 5 Types of Couples

When I bring up the Gottmans, I am going to assume by now that you know who I’m talking about. Tune into episode 44 of Reimagining Love to learn from the incredible conversation I had with them. Years ago, research by the Gottmans identified that there are five Types of Couples: three types of happy couples (Conflict-Avoidant Couples, Volatile Couples, and Validating Couples) and two types of unhappy couples (Hostile and Hostile-Detached). The point I want to make for our purposes today is about the happy couples, but first I will tell you briefly about the two types of unhappy couples. The Hostile couples have a lot of what the Gottmans call “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” —criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The Hostile-Detached couples have all of that, plus a deep sense of disengagement from each other.

 Now, what I want to tell you is about the three types of happy couples: the Conflict-Avoidant Couples, the Volatile Couples, and the Validating couples. 

  1. Conflict-Avoidant Couples don’t use persuasion to get each other to see it their way, and they emphasize common ground. They don’t bring up topics that are going to create conflict. Using the “filter” language that we’re playing with in these articles, Conflict-Avoidant Couples have the tightest filter. 
  2. Volatile Couples are the opposite. They use lots of persuasion, they love to debate their observations and their hot takes. They have a high value on honesty in their communication. But it is not disrespectful. No insults. No contempt. They use a lot of humor as they hash something out. Using the “filter” language, Volatile Couples have the loosest filter. 
  3. Validating Couples fall in between the Conflict-Avoidant Couples and the Volatile Couples. They focus a lot on supporting each other’s point of view and empathizing with each other’s feelings. Using the “filter” language, Validating Couples have a filter somewhere in the middle. 

Those are three different types of relationship atmospheres, right? You can probably think of happy and stable couples you know who fit into each of those categories of couples. I am sharing this research as a reminder that we’re not talking about right and wrong ways of being. If we know that there are couples who can be happy sharing most of the stuff that’s on their minds and there are couples who can be happy sharing relatively less of the stuff that’s on their minds, then it’s about the two of you having a mutual understanding and appreciation for the agreements you make about what and how you share with each other. Why do you and your partner communicate the way you do? What’s the value in your way of doing it? What’s the risk in how you communicate? What do you need to keep in mind? 


There are lots of different things that knock around inside of our heads that require us to make judgment calls around whether we speak our minds or keep quiet. Obviously some of the stuff in our heads is complimentary: “I think you look beautiful,” “I love how you took care of our son,” or “I am so impressed by how you handled your work drama.” I want us to have a very loose filter on the good stuff. If you are having a warm or complimentary thought about your partner, move it from your thinking bubble to your speaking bubble ASAP! Build that cushion of positivity. Let your partner know that you think they are the bees knees. Might it make you feel a little vulnerable? Sure. Is it good and helpful to persist anyway? Absolutely!

I am talking about the stuff in our heads that skews negative. Broadly speaking, feedback that tends to be more dicey includes these categories:

  • Opinions (“You should / should not”)
  • Criticisms about behavior (“You should have / should not have”)
  • Criticisms of personality/character (“You are so…”)
  • Reactions (“What you just did gives me the ick…makes me feel embarrassed…”)

Topics could be anything, but some especially tricky ones for couples include perceptions around attraction, weight, outfits, makeup/hair, work dynamics, your partner’s behavior (around the house, out with friends, with family), and your partner’s choices (what they are eating, what they are drinking, how they are spending their time, or how they are talking to the kids, etc). One of the biggest challenges we have in our relationships in general, and in our intimate relationships in particular, is that we end up getting stuck fighting for objectivity. We fight about what happened. We get stuck in the details rather than the emotions, the meaning, and the implications. There is a fancy word I want to introduce here: epistemology. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. It is how we know what we know. It is how we make sense of the world around us. This could be a whole separate article, but for our purposes today, I want to contrast two ways of knowing. Two epistemologies, two approaches to knowing what we know.

A positivist epistemology assumes that there is one absolute truth and it is knowable. A constructivist epistemology says that our perception of reality is shaped by our location, like our experience, our socialization, or our identity. When we approach our relationships with a positivist epistemology, our relationships suffer. When we convince ourselves that we own the corner on the market of absolute truth, our relationships suffer. When we believe that the way we experienced a moment is the only possible way to have experienced a moment, our relationships suffer. 

Our intimate relationships are much stronger when we adopt a constructivist epistemology. Our intimate relationships are much stronger when we can remember that smart minds can differ on how a problem “should” be handled because we have differences in priorities and values. When we can remember that multiple realities exist because we perceive the world through the lens of our experiences and so the quest for objectivity is useless. 

Let’s discuss two examples:

  1. Your partner has a new pair of glasses that you do not particularly like. Feedback that reflects a positive epistemology sounds like this: “Those glasses do not look good on you.” This feedback is offered as if it is Capital T truth. Feedback that reflects a constructivist epistemology sounds like this: “Based on my personal preferences, I like the other pair of glasses better.” This is an especially important distinction to make when it comes to attraction, fashion, appearance, and aesthetics because beauty is highly subjective. It’s based on personal preference and cultural location, not objective truth. In an intimate relationship we hopefully want to make fashion choices that our partner finds pleasing but not to the exclusion of our own preferences. That’s easier to do when our partner expresses their preferences to us versus positioning it as some obvious, universal, objective fact about what looks better.
  2. You and your partner wait a long time for a table in a restaurant, and your partner speaks in a sharp tone to the waiter. Feedback that reflects a positive epistemology sounds like this: “You were rude to the waiter.” Feedback that reflects a constructivist epistemology sounds like this: “My take on the situation is that your tone was quite sharp, and I felt uncomfortable. It seemed to me like the waiter felt uncomfortable too.”

The distinction I am making here is not about speaking up versus biting your tongue. It’s about paying attention to the premise or belief that is underlying your feedback. 

When you speak as if you are reflecting something objectively true (i.e. a positivist epistemology), your partner is more likely to respond by sharing what they believe is objectively true. And you will get caught up in a battle for the truth, missing out on a chance to understand each other better. When you speak from your perception (i.e. a constructivist epistemology), you and your partner can bypass the battle about the truth. You can focus instead about what led your partner to do what they did (which might open up compassion inside of you). You can focus instead on why you experienced their behavior the way you did (which might help them understand you more deeply). For the sake of your intimate relationship, let go of the battle for the truth and get curious about how, as Neal Donald Walsh says, “Perspective creates perception.”

Relational Dynamics

The chances that you and your partner live on the exact same spot on the Filter Spectrum at all times and on all topics are very very slim. This means that maybe at times you experience your partner’s bluntness as hurtful. Maybe you sometimes keep quiet but feel resentful. This also means that there are relationship dynamics. You may become increasingly blunt if your partner has a tendency toward shutting down because when they shut down, it’s easy to miss the fact that your words have actually hurt them. You may become increasingly people-pleasing if your partner conveys that they are hurt or offended by your words.

So, what I want to do now is provide some guidance to the partner who tends toward bluntness and then provide some guidance for the partner who tends toward people-pleasing. 

Guidance for the Blunt One

I am talking to you first, the person who has less of a filter. ⁣Sharing an observation, an opinion, or a piece of feedback requires skill. Sharing feedback is not a free-for-all. ⁣You have a responsibility to package what you say in a way that helps your partner hear you. This is not coddling. It’s kindness and effectiveness. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind so that your tendency toward bluntness feels to your partner like an asset, not a liability:

  1. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. If I was my partner, how would this feedback sound to me? (This is not about you imagining how you would feel if you heard your words. It’s about you imagining how your partner will feel hearing your words… given what you know and love and cherish about who your partner is as a person).
  2. Think about what will help your partner receive your opinion or observation in the best possible way. The time and place to bring it up. The tone. 
  3. Think about whether you are choosing this response or you are reacting to something. How regulated versus dysregulated, calm versus upset you are coming across is going to shape how your partner receives what you’re saying. If your partner feels like you’re flying off the handle, their reflex is going to be to armor up and protect themselves.
  4. Keep an eye out for some red alert phrases. As a couples therapist, I can sit back a bit more when couples are speaking to each other in a way that demonstrates Relational Self-Awareness (i.e. when they are talking about things as their perceptions rather than absolute truths, when they are giving each other the benefit of the doubt), and I have to step in more as partners get more activated. In addition to tracking how people’s bodies are positioned and their facial expressions, I track their language. Here are a few phrases that indicate that we’re tipping from truth telling in the service of connection and mutual understanding into brutal honesty that erodes emotional safety:
    • “I’m just going to be really honest here…” 
    • “I might regret saying this but…” 
    • “This may be hard for you to hear but…”

When you start using language like that, it’s a good time to pause.

  1. Check in with yourself about your motivation. Ask yourself this question, “Why am I wanting to share this observation/this critique/this opinion right now?” Get honest with yourself. Do you truly believe that what you want to share is in support of your partner’s highest good? Is it in support of their growth? Is what you’re about to say being fueled by a part of you that is invested in activating insecurity inside of your partner? If so, why might that be? What is going on that might cause you to want/need a leg up in the relationship at this moment?
  2. The greater the urgency to speak, the greater the need to stay quiet. If it feels like you have to say this right now, pause. Take a breath. Check in with yourself. Urgency is suspicious. It might be letting you know that what you want to say is coming from a desire to control the situation, or prove something to your partner rather than from a desire to support your partner, grow your partner, invite your partner into a deeper understanding of who you are as a person. When you are triggered, less is more. Put the phone down. Close your mouth. Step away. Pause.
  3. Remember that discernment isn’t dishonesty. We have 0% control over the thoughts that pop into our minds but we have 100% control over what comes out of our mouths. Our minds can be some pretty tangly territory at times. For the sake of our mental health, we need to not believe everything we think. For the sake of our relational health, we need to not say everything we think. When some crazy ass thought runs through your head, and you don’t tell your partner, you’re not being withholding. You are not lying. You’re being merciful and mature. ⁣
  4. Practice self-compassion. If you’re feeling some shame or regret as you read all this, I want to remind you to be sweet to you. Remember that these tendencies are neither all good nor all bad. We talked in the last article about some of the painful Family of Origin dynamics that might have led you to be more of a shoot-from-the-hip kind of person. Have compassion for the way that your bluntness might have been a Coping Strategy that you needed when you were young that you just don’t need in the same way today. Your bluntness may have developed in a prior, less-than-healthy intimate relationship. Perhaps you needed to be blunt to be heard by your ex. Perhaps you were hurt by your ex so you now tend to lash out before being lashed out at. Hold compassion for yourself and remind yourself that you can work today (hopefully) with this partner to create a more emotionally safe relationship. You can soften and slow down today. It might be taking you some time to let your guard back down.

Guidance for the Partner of the Blunt One

Ok, so your partner tends to be more blunt than you. This means that you are in the wake of feedback quite often. Hopefully most of their feedback feels like it’s delivered lovingly and in the service of connection. But I suspect sometimes your feelings are hurt and I suspect sometimes you need to let them know. Letting your partner know that your feelings are hurt is important. The Gottmans have found that happy couples have what is called a low negativity threshold. They address the pebble in their shoe before it becomes a chronic rub. When your partner’s feedback has hurt your feelings, it is reasonable to want and need to talk together about it. Here are some reminders.

  1. Address your concerns, but see if you can be clear and explicit about conveying that you understand the difference between your partner’s actions and their character. “I know that you value me and this relationship, which is precisely why I want to raise a concern.”
  2. When your partner’s words have hurt you, it can help to be explicit that you understand the difference between their intent and their impact. “When you said I was being ‘inconsiderate’ the other night, I know that you did not intend to hurt me. And, the impact is that I felt hurt because I pride myself on taking other people’s needs into account and because your view of me matters.”

When you are feeling hurt by something your partner has said to you, put the hurtful words between the two of you. Rather than getting into that positivist debate about whether your partner is too gruff or you are too sensitive, orient yourselves shoulder-to-shoulder and look together at what happened. Here are some questions that can guide your conversation:

What was going on inside of your partner that led them to have less of a filter? Was your partner feeling especially self-critical? It’s hard to offer more kindness to others than we are offering to ourselves. Was your partner feeling stressed about something else and sort of took it out on you? Stress compromises our bandwidth and creates the conditions for us to cut corners in our communication. Was your partner feeling unseen or unappreciated by you? If so, they may be consciously or unconsciously turning up the volume to convey that hurt indirectly. I am not justifying this behavior, I am highlighting this as a line of inquiry. If this resonates for your partner, it’s their internal work to extend some compassion to themselves, remembering that they are more than their mean behavior. And then use that self-compassion to fuel an acknowledgement and an apology.

What was going on inside of you that led you to feel hurt by your partner’s words? To what degree is your partner’s comment something that would 10 times out of 10 feel hurtful to you? The answer may very well be that absolutely 10 times out of 10 this comment was hurtful and not okay. Fine. The conversation needs to be about why comments like that CANNOT, for you, coexist with emotional safety. If you can imagine a scenario where you could have let a comment like this roll off your back, what’s different right now for you? Are you feeling especially self-critical such that their negatively-tinged words piled onto your negative self-talk? Are you feeling a bit more insecure in the relationship for some reason, which heightens your sensitivity?

When one or both of you can own YOUR piece of what happened, you open the door to a radically different conversation. A conversation founded in Relational Self-Awareness holds the potential to deepen connection and understanding. And it makes it so much easier to apologize, forgive, and move on.

Here is an example of this kind of self-reflection in action. The November solo episode of Reimagining Love had just come out—it was the episode about couples and work stress. Todd and I were on a walk and I asked him, like I do every week, for his feedback. He said, and this is not an exact transcript, “To be honest, it was hands down my least favorite episode! It was a slog. To be clear. For couples who are struggling with work stress, I cannot imagine anyone putting a better piece of content out there, but I kept checking to see how much time I had left.” OOF! Let’s be clear. I am someone who identifies as pretty darned sensitive. I am not known for my thick skin. But my reaction to his feedback was… total neutrality and curiosity. I said something like, “really?” and I asked him some follow up questions. But even as I was asking follow up questions and we were talking about his reactions to the episode, I felt this parallel awareness that I could totally see a world in which him speaking these same words would have hurt my feelings and led me to feel crappy about myself and crappy about him.

The objective piece: I reminded myself, out loud, that he is not a great representation of the show’s target audience. He listens to be entertained so he prefers episodes where I’m talking to a guest. The me piece: I was not feeling particularly self-critical that day so I could stay curious rather than feeling like his words just added to an already boisterous chorus inside of my head. The us piece: There was a cushion of positivity between us going into this conversation so these words landed softly and gently. The Gottmans have found that in order to feel happy and satisfied in our relationship, we need a 20:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions, so this tracks! There was enough positivity between us to metabolize this criticism. In fact, the fact that I was able to stay curious with him led him to then dig a little deeper and wonder if perhaps dislike of the episode maybe, at least in part, reflected some resistance on his part to the notion that work stress hurts our relationship sometimes.

Guidance for the People-Pleaser

  1. Feel proud of what your people-pleasing makes possible in your relationships. We’re living in a time when there’s a lot of people-pleaser bashing going on. Rather than viewing this tendency of yours as a deficit or a problem or a symptom, hold onto the both/and of it. It helps people feel seen by you and safe with you and puts you at risk of being taken advantage of or silencing yourself. It is an asset to your intimate relationship. 
  2. Look for symptoms of resentment. Resentment can feel like irritability. It can feel like numbness or flatness. You may feel like you hide it well, but resentment will take a toll on your relationship. If you are feeling resentful, that’s your cue to begin to share more of what’s inside of your thinking bubble about what you need and want from your partner and from the relationship.
  3. Tee your partner up. If you are stretching yourself by sharing some feedback with them, let them know, “Hey, you know it’s not easy for me to share my observations, so please be patient while I get this out.” I want your partner to welcome your feedback so that you feel increasingly able to speak up when you need and want to.
  4. Check in with your motivation. How clear do you feel that you are sharing something in the service of relational growth versus to prove something or to paint yourself as a victim? How clear do you feel that you want to share this in order to feel closer to your partner? If your answer to these questions is a pretty darned clear that your motivations are relational ones, then challenge yourself to speak up.
  5. Practice self-compassion. Your people-pleasing may very well reflect an old Coping Strategy. Be sweet to that Coping Strategy even if and as your work on shifting so that you have more voice and authenticity in your intimate relationship.

How to Love a People-Pleaser

If you are partnered with someone who is more on the people-pleasing side of the spectrum, here’s what you need to keep in mind:

  1. Go slowly with decision-making. Your partner has a tendency to keep their opinions and preferences inside of their thinking bubble. Go slowly and leave them space to come forward with their ideas, preferences, and suggestions.
  2. Ask questions. You might assume that if they have an opinion or a preference, they will verbalize it… because that’s what you do. In fact, your partner might need encouragement from you, in the form of questions.
  3. Listen for times they express preferences or opinions. You might not be accustomed to hearing them because they might not come up very often. So train your ears to listen for them, and pay attention to them.
  4. Thank them for sharing their feedback with you. This might be hard and risky for them, so affirm that you can handle it and that it’s valuable.
  5. Be careful about how you deal with disappointment. If you have a tendency to pout or sulk when you don’t get your way, you are likely subtly reinforcing your partner’s tendency toward people-pleasing. When you feel disappointed, take a breath. Tend to whatever part of you feels rejected. Remind yourself that this moment is in fact a moment. It doesn’t capture the sum total of who the two of you are as a couple. 
  6. People-pleasers are vulnerable to being taken advantage of. You may notice your partner doing a lot of emotional work in their friendships or saying yes to additional demands from their boss. You may find yourself wanting to point that out to them. You might feel protective of them, their time, their energy.  Be thoughtful about how you bring it up.
    • Go meta: Are you available for feedback?
    • Practice constructivist epistemology: It seems to me…
    • Be curious: I wonder how you are feeling…


We did it! Reminder that we have created a companion worksheet for this article. If you’d like to grab your copy, you can head to I hope you found this discussion helpful. I hope it’s given you some things to think about and some ideas for how to know when and how to share your feedback and observations with your partner. 

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